Wednesday, 4 July 2012


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Cultural comprador

“The cultural ideal in literature, theatre, painting, music, dress, food, conversation, etiquette and so on was now drawn from the colonizer's world. The new literacy thus tried to transform India into a cultural province of the colonial metropolis and neo-literate Indians into cultural compradors.” K. N. Panikkar wrote in his essay ‘Creating a New Cultural Taste: Reading a Nineteenth Century Malayalam Novel'.

We could say the same thing in our country, by just changing the word ‘India’ to ‘Sri Lanka'. We are still a ‘cultural province’ and more so than India. India reminds us of Nehru's own claim, “I am the last Englishman to rule India”.

Compradors, from a Portuguese word meaning buyer, came in many forms in our country too, though the word originated in China for a Chinese representative of a colonial master, who betrayed his own people for a little money. During the colonial era the term ‘comprador bourgeois’ was used, which could be applied to the cultural ‘compradors’ too, who claim to have survived one form of decolonization to become part of a neo-colonization under the new great powers..

Prof. Hamid Dabashi (Columbia University, New York) identifies ‘comprador intellectuals’ as those who have moved to North America and Western Europe and are acting as native informers in the manufacturing of a sort of useful knowledge that facilitates the imperial domination of the countries from which they have immigrated. Edward Said developed the concept of intellectual exile, migrant intellectuals who no longer feel at home either in their homeland or their host-society,

We have been teaching little kids ‘Ba Ba Black Sheep’, when they have never seen a sheep in their life or know what wool is or what it is used for. Children were punished or fined if they spoke in the ‘vernacular'. They had no option but to read English books. They were made to say “good morning”, instead of “ayubohowan”. Wishing long life was much better than wishing just for the morning to be good.

The cultural comprador also caused an adverse reaction, which resulted in scorning the use of English and the teaching of English, which has affected us very severely in the shrinking global community. We still have the anti-comprador feelings among the people who are against teaching or the use of English. What we have to realize is that we can use English as our servant, we do not have to be subservient to the language.

In our country, the cultural compradors may not have shown a major influence among the English speaking elite, because they did not need an intermediate to be influenced by the western culture. The effect was mostly on the Sinhala and Tamil communities who had to read the so-called modern, post-modern, post-colonial literature in Sinhala or Tamil.

That is why Shehan Karunatilleke's Chinaman would not have any effect on the English readers, but anyone who translates it into Sinhala or Tamil would be playing the role of the comprador, by subtly influencing our readers to the way of life of the decadent Western lifestyle of some of the cricketers and cricket fans.

Our early Sinhala writers were heavily influenced by the Western novel, which most of them have admitted later on. Piyadasa Sirisena, one of our earliest novelists, though he admitted reading English novels, was leading a battle against the cultural compradors of his time.

We had our cultural compradors for a long period into our past. First they were the compradors from North India, who tried to change our own native culture of the Yaksha and Naga races.

It was the time when the comprador intellectuals wrote our own chronicles and translated the Sinhala writings into Pali, taking our historical and religious literature away from the common man. Later it had been continued by the compradors working for the South Indians, till the time of the arrival of the Europeans.

Sometimes the comprador intellectuals were born again when they went to England, and later America for their higher education, for post-graduate and post-doctoral research, specially on our own culture, our history, our languages and even our religion. It was not everyone who went abroad for such studies who fell victims to the colonial and post-colonial masters from the west, there were many who were able to overcome such influence and steer clear of them.

Madhavan, a character in Oyyarath Chandu Menon's ‘Indulekha’, wants the Indians to become like Englishmen, “to instill into the English greater faith in us, greater affection and greater regard for us,..”. Indulekha is a Malayalam novel first published in 1889, which is claimed to be the only novel to have been reprinted nearly every year for over a hundred years. Chandu Menon was “attempting to create a novel much like those of the English authors he had read..” We too had our own Chandu Menons among Sinhala writers in our country serving their English masters.

Such modern day compradors who taught creative writing, have reviewed and criticised the Sri Lankan literature according to Mikhail Bakhtin or E. M. Forster, even up to the 21st century.

Most of them always tried to study, review or appreciate the Sinhala novel and Sinhala poetry by the standards set by the western writers, and always tried to see what western influence could be seen in the Sri Lankan writing, believing that the Sinhala and Tamil writers were not capable of producing their own creative works.

The latest cultural compradors come to us via the digital media who do it more effectively, and even subconsciously, and they will continue to act on behalf of their alien masters.

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